Much like last season, the story of spring training has been injuries for the New York Yankees. James Paxton ( ) and Luis Severino ( ) are out long-term, and Giancarlo Stanton ( ) is likely to miss Opening Day. The Yankees put a record number of players on the injured list last season and no relief is in sight.
Catcher Gary Sanchez was among the Yankees to visit the injured list last season -- he missed time with a groin issue -- but, so far this spring, he's among those to remain intact. He and new ace Gerrit Cole are working to build a rapport, first and foremost. Sanchez is also working on several defensive adjustments this spring with the help of new catching coach Tanner Swanson.
Specifically, Sanchez is learning a catching stance that will help him better balance framing with blocking. His passed ball issues are well-known -- Sanchez allowed 16 passed balls in 2017 and 18 in 2018, both MLB highs -- but he did improve his blocking last year. He allowed only seven passed balls, and his overall blocking numbers were better:
|Innings Caught||Passed Balls||Wild Pitches||Innings per PB+WP||Blocking Runs|
Baseball Prospectus' catcher metrics say Sanchez was a comfortably below-average blocker in 2017 and 2018, and only slightly below-average in 2019. Going from really bad to only a little bad qualifies as an improvement. The problem? Sanchez's pitch-framing went into the tank last season. He improved his blocking but his framing got worse.
According to Baseball Prospectus, Sanchez went from plus-7.4 runs framing in 2017 to plus-3.3 runs in 2018 to minus-5.1 runs in 2019. As the blocking improved, the pitch-framing went south, and framing is the more valuable skill because there are so many more opportunities to frame than block. The blocking improvement was more than negated by the framing decline.
Swanson joined the Yankees this offseason after spending time with the Minnesota Twins, where he helped Mitch Garver improve his framing. Garver went from minus-8.3 runs framing in 2018 to plus-4.2 runs in 2019. That's a huge, huge swing. Swanson did it by revamping Garver's stance behind the plate. Specifically, he now rests in one knee, like this:
"It's the only reason I'm still catching. Really," Garver told FiveThirtyEight's Travis Sawchik last September.
The one-knee catching stance is not new. Longtime baseball fans may remember Tony Pena's exaggerated crouch, and you'll see it a few times per game even these days. Garver started doing it pretty much all the time though. Runners on base, late in the count, whatever. Previously, the one-knee stance was reserved for lower-risk situations (bases empty, etc.).
More than anything, the one-knee stance helped Garver better frame low pitches. In 2018, Garver's called strike rate on pitches at the bottom of the zone was 33.7 percent, the lowest in baseball. That jumped to 57.8 percent with the one-knee stance in 2019, one of the highest marks in the game. Sanchez was at 43.2 percent called strikes on low pitches last season, which is below-average.
The Yankees hired Swanson over the winter because they want him to work the same magic with Sanchez that he worked with Garver in Minnesota. They want to find that balance between blocking and framing rather than choosing between one or the other. Sanchez and Swanson have been working together all spring and the new one-knee stance debuted earlier this week:
The one-knee stance is intended to put the catcher in a more athletic position and not sacrifice blocking ability to improve framing, and vice versa. Also, it equals less wear and tear because the catcher is almost sitting more than squatting. Catcher is a brutal position and anything that can be done to make it easier on the knees is definitely appreciated.
"When you're in a comfortable spot, now you're in a position to execute back there and really receive the ball the way you should be,'' Yankees manager Aaron Boone told reporters, including NorthJersey.com's Pete Caldera, regarding Sanchez's new catching stance. "We're looking for the complete package here. [We] feel like Tanner's a guy that, from a coaching standpoint, can be really impactful.''
Offense has never been the question with Sanchez. His 105 home runs since Opening Day 2016 lead all catchers -- Yasmani Grandal is second with 101 -- and that's despite not getting called up for good until August 2016, and spending four different stints on the injured list from 2017-19. For a young catcher, Sanchez's power production is truly historic.
The passed ball plagued Sanchez early in his career. It was a significant weakness. He improved his blocking last season, but his framing suffered, and maybe there's a causation there. It could be that Sanchez focused so much on blocking that he occasionally abandoning framing opportunities to make sure he kept the ball in front of him. It doesn't seem impossible.
Either way, the numbers don't lie. Over the last three seasons Sanchez went from a poor blocker and a very good framer to an OK-ish blocker and a poor framer. The Yankees want the best of both worlds. They want him to block and frame, and the one-knee stance is Swanson's solution. Sanchez has four weeks to get comfortable with it before Opening Day.
"Work in progress," Sanchez told reporters, including NJ.com's Brendan Kuty, earlier this week. "It's something new to me, something that I'm still learning. There were a couple times (during Wednesday's game) where I was in-between. The rhythm was not as good. On some occasions it was pretty good. The desired results were there. But I'll keep on working on it."